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10 Must-See Sites in Honolulu & O’ahu

Warm yourself in the tropical sun, and explore this must-see list of attractions and sites in Honolulu & O’ahu.

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1. Kane’ohe

The area loosely known as Kane’ohe is both commuting distance from Honolulu and a world away, the gateway to the North Shore and its country-style life. Many native Hawaiians live here and the area is peppered with historic sites. You notice the difference at once – more pickup trucks, parked vehicles selling fresh fish and Hawaiian foods, and a slower pace.

Must-See Site: Mokoli’I (Chinaman’s Hat): A lopsided conical island (pictured), visible from He’eia to Kualoa, Mokoli’I is oft-visited by kayakers. It is said to be the remains of a giant mo’o (lizard god)

(Photo courtesy of magnus9/Flickr Creative Commons)

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2. Polynesian Cultural Center

Covering 42 acres on O’ahu’s scenic north shore, the Polynesian Cultural Center provides an unparalleled opportunity to explore the seven Pacific Island nations in one place on a single day. Though undeniably kitsch in places, the center has been immensely popular since the 1970s and welcomes around one million guests annually.

Must-See Site: Rainbows of Paradise: Each day at 2:30 p.m., the quiet lagoons come alive. Dozens of Polynesians in traditional costume present an interpretation of 5,000 years of Pacific island cultural lore in a rousing pageant.

(Photo courtesy of marcus_and_sue/Flickr Creative Commons)

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3. Bishop Museum and Planetarium

The State Museum and Cultural History is a family-friendly center for scientific and cultural experience and study. It also hosts travelling exhibitions and is home to the Jhamandus Watumull planetarium. Almost every weekend, and on many weeknights, there are lectures, workshops, and openings. The museum also has a fascinating interactive science center.

Must-See Site: Planetarium: The exceptionally active planetarium stages interactive shows, night viewing sessions, and the “Science on a Sphere” exhibit in the lobby.

(Photo courtesy of Mordac/Flickr Creative Commons)

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4. South Shore

O’ahu’s south shore changes rapidly from suburb to barely touched landscapes of azure bays, botanical gardens, and a shoreline from which whales can be seen in the winter surf. Though close to the city’s action, the coast has almost no services – no stores and few restrooms. An occasional lunchwagon at Sandy Beach and a snack stand at Hanauma Bay provide respite.

Must-See Site: Wawamalu & Kaloko: These two beaches are fine for shoreline pleasures, such as sunbathing or flying a kite, but don’t even think of taking on the killing shore break and swift currents.

(Photo courtesy of **Mary**/Flickr Creative Commons)

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5. Pearl Harbor

Set in a bay where Hawaiians once harvested clams and oysters (hence the “pearl” connection), the infamous World War II site is still a key military base. The harbor’s relics and memorials, which incorporate the resting place of the doomed battleship Arizona and the final berth of the historic USS Missouri, are visited by 1.5 million people each year. A museum of military aviation is also nearby.

Must-See Site: Officers’ Quarters: The expensive but highly recommended 90-minute Captain’s Tour of the Missouri takes you into areas for officers. The quarters may be small by civilian standards but are plush compared to the sailor’s “racks”.

(Photo courtesy of Official-U.S.-Navy-Imagery/Flickr Creative Commons)

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6. Iolani Palace

A National Historic Landmark, this is the only state residence of royalty in the U.S. It was built for King David Kalakaua and his queen, Kapi’olani, and was the home of his sister, Queen Lili’uokalani, until her reign ended in 1893. From 1893 to 1968 ‘Iolani was the seat of the Hawaiian government. Heavily restored, it includes priceless object and gorgeous decorative touches.

Must-See Site: Throne Room: The king and queen would sit in state and receive their visitors. In 1895, however, in less happy times for the monarchy, Queen Lili’uokalani was put on trial in these august surroundings.

(Photo courtesy of Karen Chan/Flickr Creative Commons)

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7. Capitol District

If you had but one day to spend in Honolulu, there’s an argument to be made for spending it right here. Concentrated within a few misshapen blocks is a clutch of historic landmarks, a toothsome Asian marketplace, a neighbourhood of fragrant lei stands, and alluring shops, galleries, and restaurants. And when it’s time to sit and contemplate, there’s also an ample store of shady mini-parks and cool retreats on hand.

Must-See Site: Chinatown: This 15-block historic district should more properly be called Southeast Asia town. Cohabiting amicably are food purveyors, farmer’s markets, gift shops, lei stands, and an area of art galleries and eateries.

(Photo courtesy of izumo-Houston/Flickr Creative Commons)

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8. Maritime Port

This busy port, maritime museum, and the neighbouring Aloha Tower Marketplace recall the days when Hawaii’s primary link to the world was by water. Hawaiians arrived by extraordinary voyaging canoes; Westerners followed in ships with billowing sails. For decades, the ports were paramount, the subject of constant news reports, and a source of income for dockworkers, lei sellers, and coin-divers.

Must-See: History of Surfing; California and the Beach Boys may have popularized surfing, but Hawaii invented the art of he’e nalu (literally “flowing over the waves”). Displays chronicle the evolution from huge, heavy wooden boards to today’s sharp shooters.

(Photo courtesy of wallyg_300/Flickr Creative Commons)

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9. Waikiki Oceanfront

Waikiki’s two-mile-long oceanfront street, running from Ala Wai bridge to the magnificent Diamond Head, epitomizes the dream of Hawaii – gentle surf and vibrant nightlife. Names for Hawaii’s playful last king, the street is lined with storied hotels, parks, and a host of attractions. The city has spruced up the street and Waikiki Beach with plantings, seating areas, and a waterfall that’s a favourite “photo op” spot.

Must-See Site: Waikiki Beach: It’s all happening here just as it has for more than a century – beachboys giving surf lessons; old-timers playing checkers in the pavilions; canoe teams practicing; locals mingling with tourists in the gentle waves. The whole beach is open, including the areas in-front of the Royal and Moana hotels.

(Photo courtesy of Dog-Company/Flickr Creative Commons)

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10. Honolulu Academy of the Arts

Hawaii’s only general art museum, comprising 30 galleries, was founded in 1927 by the eclectic collector Anna Rice Cooke, whose home had become crammed with more than 4,500 pieces of artwork. The gracious stucco-and-tile building in the style of what islander’s call “Territorial” was erected on the site of her original house.

Must-See Site: Asian Paintings: A centerpiece of the academy’s Asian holdins is the James Michener Collection of ukiyo-e paintings, which also includes some of Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji. The Asian Collection is equally strong on Japanese scrolls and Ming-dynasty Chinese paintings.

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(Photo courtesy of Crouchy69/Flickr Creative Commons)